6 Innovative Female Chefs in Austin

By Megan Giller  |  August 13, 2013

The kitchen wasn’t always a man’s world, but these days women are a minority in the industry. Austin is no exception, though the tables are starting to turn, as Max’s Wine Dive’s upcoming Eat.Drink.Empower dinner showcasing female sous chefs demonstrates. Here are six women chefs in our city who are already on top of their game, each making innovative, interesting dishes (many of them sweet).

  • Janina O’Leary, Trace

    Plucky pastry chef Janina O’Leary moved from Del Rio, Texas, to New York City at the ripe old age of 14 to become a chef. There, she attended culinary school and worked for some of the biggest names in the business at places like Per Se, Bouchon and Del Posto. Now back in Texas at Trace at the W Hotel here in town, the James Beard Award-nominated chef makes plated desserts that are reminiscent of childhood while still being refined and complex. We can’t get enough of her drunken doughnuts with vodka whipped cream, tequila-chile fudge sauce and bourbon dulce de leche, as well as her Meyer lemon budino with champagne sorbet, toasted marshmallow and strawberry-thyme meringue.

  • Laura Sawicki, Sway and La Condesa

    Pastry chef Laura Sawicki eats ice cream for breakfast. Why? It’s a dirty job, but someone has to taste-test all of those flavors at Sway, like condensed milk and chocolate five-spice. The James Beard Award-nominated chef thinks carefully about how her desserts interact with chef Rene Ortiz’s savory creations. At Sway she plays with flavors that cool the mouth down after the rich, spicy Thai entrees, making desserts like the jasmine tea panna cotta and the Thai tea affogato, whereas at modern Mexican restaurant La Condesa she incorporates flavors like saffron in the dulce de leche pudding cake and chile de arbol and ancho chile in the flourless chocolate cake with brown-sugar-banana ice cream.

  • Credit: Applebox Imaging

    Sonya Cote, Eden East, Hillside Farmacy and Homegrown Revival

    Local and sustainable aren’t buzzwords to chef Sonya Cote; they’re a way of life. The chef made her mark on the Austin scene first at Eastside Showroom and then at Hillside Farmacy, where she still oversees the bistro cuisine. But it’s her newest concept, Eden East, that has really grabbed our attention. The restaurant is set up at Springdale Farm and springs to life every Thursday through Saturday for a $60 fixed-price set menu that changes each week, with produce pulled from the farm while Cote cooks in a semi-permanent trailer on one side. The twinkly lights and carefully designed urban-farmhouse decor made our evening as special as the weed salad and prickly-pear-marinated duck with wilted sweet potato greens and butternut dauphine.

  • Erica Waskmunski, Congress

    Chef David Bull knew talent when he saw it in Waskmunski, who has staged at Michelin-rated restaurants like Sons & Daughters in San Francisco and Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, California, as well as worked at places like Chez TJ in Mountain View, California. Waskmunski applied for the job as head pastry chef at Congress on a Monday night, heard from Bull on Tuesday morning and a couple days later, voila! About her desserts, the pastry chef says, “I like to end a multicourse meal on a light, palate-cleansing note. Your tongue has been bombarded, and you need to lighten it back up.” She sticks to that philosophy with desserts like her coconut-jasmine rice pudding with raspberry-lemongrass sorbet and a strawberry-lychee pâté de fruit, as well as richer dishes like a blueberry-vanilla fried pie with cinnamon toast ice cream and a gianduja semifreddo with hazelnut-praline crunch.

  • Rebecca Meeker, Jeffrey’s and Josephine House

    Chef Larry McGuire recently handed the keys to his Jeffrey’s and Josephine House kingdom to chef Rebecca Meeker (formerly of Congress), and we can see why. The unassuming chef helped open Robuchon’s restaurants in New York and Taiwan, and her commitment to French technique as well as her time working in the biggest food cities in the world have made her a force to be reckoned with. But Meeker is an Austin gal through and through, having grown up here and started her career at Word of Mouth Catering. We’re eager to see what she does as the chef project manager of the McGuire-Moorman Hospitality Group.

  • Callie Speer, Swift’s Attic

    Before Swift’s Attic, pastry chef Callie Speer dropped out of the physics department at UT and worked at Austin staples like Jeffrey’s, Mars and Parkside. Plus she still owns her own business, Cakemix, a specialty cake company, on the side. At Swift’s she gets to play around with technique to create off-the-wall throwback desserts like Popcorn and a Movie, with homemade chocolate candy (think peanut butter cups meets Twix), caramel corn, salted popcorn ice cream and root beer gelee. With husband Philip Speer, Uchi and Uchiko’s director of culinary operations and pastry chef, the two make a sweet team.